Russia's state news channel chases ratings with controversy

Sergey Lavrov, minister of foreign affairs of the Russian Federation, attends the presentation of Russia Today and Russia al-Yaum English and Arabic news channels, Thursday, Sept. 27, 2007 in New York. AP Photo/Dima Gavrysh

MOSCOW, Russia When a few hundred people first set up camp in New York's Zuccotti Park in September 2011 to protest "corporate greed" on Wall Street, only a handful of journalists showed up to report on them. Among the news organizations on the scene was RT, the Kremlin-backed English-language satellite channel formerly known as Russia Today.

Speaking to a reporter from Moscow, a news anchor was quick to set the tone for the station's coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

"Is this the start of an American Spring?" he inquired over footage of police tussling with protesters, alluding to the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East.

It was the kind of reporting that's become a hallmark of the channel, enabling what was once derided as a state propaganda outlet aimed at improving Russia's reputation to cultivate the image of an emerging English-language source for alternative views.

Occasional viewers often don't realize the channel is a Russian government project, thanks partly to re-branding, heavy use of native English-speaking anchors and contributions from a new Washington bureau.

The Kremlin line is unmistakable nevertheless. Although RT left it to pundits to establish that America was becoming a police state, its reporters didn't refrain from mixing similar opinions with their reporting.

On the first anniversary of the Occupy protests, reporter Anastasia Churkina said in a broadcast that "the political establishment and Wall Street are still sleeping in the same bed," although "an actual democracy may be a little more possible with the seeds sown by Occupy."

Russia scholar Stephen Cohen of New York University, an occasional guest on RT, believes the channel was deft to capitalize on the Occupy movement. "They were made for this story," he says. "It's a good one for the Kremlin because it shows the US is having problems [and] because the networks left it."

Funded by an annual $33 million from the Russian government, Russia Today first aired in 2005 with a mission to provide what it characterized as a corrective to western reporting on international affairs.

It was seen as part of President Vladimir Putin's drive to re-establish Moscow as a global power -- fueled by the world's largest energy reserves -- by launching a prestige project that would compete with CNN and BBC World.

The channel soon gained a reputation for giving airtime to crackpot guests and conspiracy theories, such as "Why the 9/11 attacks were an inside job," mixed with soporific features about Russian tourism.

Like other government-funded international channels such as Al-Jazeera English and China's CCTV, however, Russia Today has expanded far beyond its modest beginnings. It adopted its more anonymous name and opened its Washington studios in 2010 to run a dedicated American service, and soon added broadcasts in Spanish and Arabic.

RT America airs a mix of news and talk shows during prime time, with roughly four-fifths of its content devoted to American domestic affairs.

On a program called "Breaking the Set," host Abby Martin delivers scalding reviews of US "corporate media." The opening credits show her dressed in high heels and a cocktail dress swinging a sledgehammer into a TV set playing CNN.

"F*** the media, f*** the candidates, f*** the corporatocracy!" she said at the beginning of a show before the presidential election in November. "I can't wait for this f***ing election to be over!"